Boris Johnson is under renewed pressure to withdraw his repetition of a far-right conspiracy theory about Keir Starmer, after the Labour leader was mobbed by angry protesters repeating the slur outside parliament last night.
Julian Smith, a former Conservative chief whip (and esteemed former Northern Ireland secretary before his sacking by Johnson in February 2020), led the charges against the Prime Minister last night, explicitly linking the scenes with Johnson’s comments at the despatch box. “What happened to Keir Starmer tonight outside parliament is appalling,” he tweeted. “It is really important for our democracy and for his security that the false Savile slurs made against him are withdrawn in full.”
Nine other Conservative MPs, mostly from the cohort of ex-ministers who have made no secret of their differences with the Johnson government, joined Smith’s calls on the Prime Minister to apologise for his remarks. But Johnson hasn’t, despite a tweet condemning the “disgraceful” harassment of Starmer, and he has no intention of doing so, according to his spokespeople.
You might think that Labour would be in a tricky bind over the continued circulation of false slurs against its leader. But although there are “always conversations about whether to repeat those things,” as one Labour source puts, “once the Prime Minister has said it at the despatch box it’s not like Pandora’s box is still closed”. Sentiment monitoring conducted by the Labour Party since Johnson made the comments has given them some cause for reassurance, because, although the false claim is far more widespread than it was when it was confined to dark corners of the internet as a conspiracy theory, “it is hard to find people who are new to it who believe it”, a Labour figure says, grateful to the Conservatives in particular who have said it is untrue.
But what Labour has also found in monitoring sentiment is that the cohort of people on the far-right who already believed or promoted these claims about Starmer are “whipped up and excited” that they are being given airtime and prominence. Labour has therefore been forthright in connecting last night’s scenes with Johnson’s comments. David Lammy, who was with the Labour leader yesterday, said that it is “no surprise the conspiracy theorist thugs who harassed Keir Starmer and I repeated slurs we heard from Boris Johnson last week at the despatch box.”
Yesterday was the first day of Guto Harri, the new director of communications at Number 10, and Steve Barclay, the cabinet office minister and Johnson loyalist who has taken up the position of chief of staff. With Gloria Gaynor jokes and a cheerful insistence from Harri that Johnson “isn’t a complete clown”, a jovial attempt at a reset was underway.
But yesterday also marked the first day in parliament for Anna Firth, the new Conservative MP for Southend West. She was elected in a by-election on Thursday, following the brutal killing of David Amess last year. His murder prompted an urgent conversation about the danger lived by our public servants every day and how our public discourse needs to change. As with Jo Cox’s murder, we have these conversations, and then quickly forget, until it happens again. This is not just a story about Boris Johnson’s imminent survival as Prime Minister – about letters and no confidence votes and Liz Truss posing on tanks. This is a moment where the Conservative Party is deciding what it is, and whether it is comfortable with what some of its MPs are already identifying as a “Trumpian style of politics”.